The Author of Les Misérables Is My Favourite Socialist

From the movie: Valjean the ex-convict rescues Fantine from a brothel
Valjean the ex-convict rescues Fantine from a brothel

For myself and many of my Christian friends, this movie was one of the most-anticipated releases of the year. Prof. Gene Veith called it “the most explicitly Christian film that I have seen come out of contemporary Hollywood.” And yet, I can’t help but wonder whether my friends know what I discovered (to my delight1) when I read the book: that Victor Hugo, the author of the story, was also a politician, and a socialist.

Just how much of Les Misérables is promotional material for the author’s economic and political beliefs? Quite a bit more than you might think. But Victor Hugo also had his own rather unique blend of these beliefs, that didn’t fit neatly into any one political box.

In order to understand the socialism of Victor Hugo, you first need to understand his time in history. Victor Hugo was just sixteen years older than the famous Karl Marx, and when Marx published The Communist Manifesto in 1848, Hugo had already been working on Les Misérables for at least three years. Socialism itself was a Brand New idea, still being shaped by its leading minds, and a lot of its features were still up for debate — even its anti-property preferences hadn't yet been agreed on.

But at its core, socialism meant a desire to have the monarchy removed or subjected, and, in one way or another, to elevate and defend the rights of the common man. In that sense, republicans and socialists had a lot in common.

With this in mind, we can see that a novel written in the mid-1800s would need only a few characteristic features to be considered socialist, and Hugo definitely wrote all of them into Les Misérables. It has a strong focus on the suffering of common people; a pervading belief that this suffering is caused by unjust government; and an admission that revolution is nature’s inevitable remedy for oppression.

From the movie: Enjolras leads the Parisian Republicans in revolt
Enjolras leads the Parisian Republicans in revolt

Hugo’s views on revolution were complicated. In his novels, his sympathies are definitely on the side of the oppressed against their governments. “Revolutions spring not from an accident, but from necessity,” he says as Les Mis’s narrator; “A revolution is a return from the fictitious to the real. It is because it must be that it is.” And look at how Hugo portrays the revolutionary Enjolras as opposed to the enforcers of the law:

The menacing majesty of Enjolras disarmed and motionless, appeared to oppress this tumult, and this young man, haughty, bloody, and charming, who alone had not a wound, who was as indifferent as an invulnerable being, seemed, by the authority of his tranquil glance, to constrain this sinister rabble to kill him respectfully.

Enjolras is painted as nearly god-like, while the National Guardsmen become “the sinister rabble.”

Yet while Hugo obviously sympathized with the revolutionaries, as a socialist politician he firmly opposed resorting to armed uprisings.

Hugo was at odds with his friends on the left especially in means, however: Even as Hugo called himself “socialist,” he stood opposed to the idea of the class struggle, to the leveling of income and property, to the aims with which we today associate socialism. Hugo did not believe in the inherent dignity of being a worker — or even a human being; this dignity was a thing to be earned through labor and accomplishment; it was not the government’s job to provide a wage, but to foster an environment in which workers could thrive and prosper. To that end, Hugo explicitly rejected the idea of revolution, and of seizing private property, warning that the poor would not become rich because the rich were made poor, and stability would not come to the marginalized because the well-placed were upset.
— Geoffrey Barto, Hugo and Economics, 2002

Les Misérables Explains (Early) Socialism

Here is what Hugo writes on the subject in a later chapter of the book (I have highlighted a few phrases for emphasis):

The reader will not be surprised if, for various reasons, we do not here treat in a thorough manner, from the theoretical point of view, the questions raised by socialism. We confine ourselves to indicating them.

All the problems that the socialists proposed to themselves, cosmogonic visions, revery and mysticism being cast aside, can be reduced to two principal problems.

First problem: To produce wealth.

Second problem: To share it.

The first problem contains the question of labor.

The second contains the question of salary.

In the first problem the employment of forces is in question.

In the second, the distribution of enjoyment.

From the proper employment of forces results public power.

From a good distribution of enjoyments results individual happiness.

By a good distribution, not an equal but an equitable distribution must be understood.

From these two things combined, the public power without, individual happiness within, results social prosperity.

Social prosperity means the man happy, the citizen free, the nation great.

England solves the first of these two problems. She creates wealth admirably, she divides it badly. This solution which is complete on one side only leads her fatally to two extremes: monstrous opulence, monstrous wretchedness. All enjoyments for some, all privations for the rest, that is to say, for the people; privilege, exception, monopoly, feudalism, born from toil itself. A false and dangerous situation, which sates public power or private misery, which sets the roots of the State in the sufferings of the individual. A badly constituted grandeur in which are combined all the material elements and into which no moral element enters.

Communism and agrarian law think that they solve the second problem. They are mistaken. Their division kills production. Equal partition abolishes emulation; and consequently labor. It is a partition made by the butcher, which kills that which it divides. It is therefore impossible to pause over these pretended solutions. Slaying wealth is not the same thing as dividing it.

The two problems require to be solved together, to be well solved. The two problems must be combined and made but one.

…Solve the two problems, encourage the wealthy, and protect the poor, suppress misery, put an end to the unjust farming out of the feeble by the strong, put a bridle on the iniquitous jealousy of the man who is making his way against the man who has reached the goal, adjust, mathematically and fraternally, salary to labor, mingle gratuitous and compulsory education with the growth of childhood, and make of science the base of manliness, develop minds while keeping arms busy, be at one and the same time a powerful people and a family of happy men, render property democratic, not by abolishing it, but by making it universal, so that every citizen, without exception, may be a proprietor, an easier matter than is generally supposed; in two words, learn how to produce wealth and how to distribute it, and you will have at once moral and material greatness; and you will be worthy to call yourself France.

This is what socialism said outside and above a few sects which have gone astray; that is what it sought in facts, that is what it sketched out in minds.

Quaint nationalism aside, what do we make of this “socialism”, which seeks “not an equal, but an equitable distribution”? When Hugo expresses his wish to “render property democratic, not by abolishing it, but by making it universal, so that every citizen, without exception, may be a proprietor” — he uses language and ideas later taken up by the Distributists in opposition to socialism (and capitalism). I’d almost go so far as to say he was a Distributist without knowing it.

From the movie: Valjean accepts as a free gift the silver he stole from the Bishop
Jean Valjean, destroyed and hardened by the justice system, is baffled by the Bishop's kindness

Hugo’s socialism was heavily balanced by a clear idea of individual merit, and this balance is seen in the character of Jean Valjean. Hugo plainly lays the blame for Valjean’s sufferings on France’s ultra-oppressive legal justice system — again, a distinctly leftist2 perspective. But once transformed by love, Valjean is depicted as rising (temporarily) in success, not by overthrowing his oppressors, but through his entrepreneurial efforts:

Towards the close of 1815 a man, a stranger [Jean Valjean], had established himself in the town, and had been inspired with the idea of substituting, in this manufacture, gum-lac for resin, and, for bracelets in particular, slides of sheet-iron simply laid together, for slides of soldered sheet-iron.

This very small change had effected a revolution.

This very small change had, in fact, prodigiously reduced the cost of the raw material, which had rendered it possible in the first place, to raise the price of manufacture, a benefit to the country; in the second place, to improve the workmanship, an advantage to the consumer; in the third place, to sell at a lower price, while trebling the profit, which was a benefit to the manufacturer.

Thus three results ensued from one idea.

In less than three years the inventor of this process had become rich, which is good, and had made every one about him rich, which is better. He was a stranger in the Department. Of his origin, nothing was known; of the beginning of his career, very little. It was rumored that he had come to town with very little money, a few hundred francs at the most.

It was from this slender capital, enlisted in the service of an ingenious idea, developed by method and thought, that he had drawn his own fortune, and the fortune of the whole countryside.

Notice what Hugo offers us here: the idea of a revolution effected by innovation rather than by uprising. This is definitely not an idea you would associate with classical socialism.

In the end, the author of Les Misérables comes across as both overtly liberal and overtly Christian. He portrays a necessary inner transformation — a salvation — that law and justice can never bring, and the powerful social merit of those so transformed. But he also wants to force you to see the suffering in the world; he wants to wrench your heart with it, and to give you an appetite for social change as an extension of individual virtue. He really is one of those rare, rich resources from which just about everyone, whether conservative or liberal, can learn a lot — the kind of man most people either find fault with, or else enjoy without really understanding.

1 I was delighted, not because I’m a socialist, but because I feel it makes an excellent joke on my conservative friends, most of whom use the word “socialist” without seeming to have any idea what it means, as though it were just another word for “evil”. 

2 In the 1800s, being “conservative,” or “right-wing” meant you favoured the hereditary rights of the monarchy and the aristocracy; being “liberal,” or “on the left” meant you opposed them in favor of more democratic government.